Friday, February 12, 2010

My Hamburger Philosophy

I will start this post by describing a Frankenstein monster that is most certainly not a hamburger. I had a law school acquaintance (friend would be too strong of a word, and you have so few real "friends" in law school, that calling him a friend would be a bald insult to my actual law school friends). He was absolutely convinced that he made the best burger in the world, and his "top secret" recipe used almost 30 ingredients. As if that weren't an egregious fail in my eyes, he couldn't cook a burger to temperature to save his life, especially on his way-too-hot grill (it does not take 15 minutes to cook a burger on a grill). These forces combined into what was surely the worst hamburger ever, a dense, overcooked lacrosse ball, bitter from cheap balsamic vinegar and burnt garlic. I think he used sirloin too (and lots of Worcestershire sauce).

I will admit that as a budding teenage cook, I too believed that more was always better. But I now realize that my teenage self was a moron, who couldn't cook for shit. I don't pretend that this is the "perfect" recipe, but I firmly believe that there is absolutely no secret to burgers. I've broken my down burger recipe into ten steps.

There are three ways I like to make burgers. The first two, smashed burgers and sliders, are essentially the same except for size and onion usage. I also sometimes make a thicker pub-style burger, but lately my tastes have shifted to the flatter, crustier patty, or the "smashburger" as it is sometimes called."

Shopsin's sliders with cheese and onions.

Step 1: Get ground chuck, 80/20 meat to fat ratio, as fresh as possible (if you grind your own, even better). More on this later.

Step 2: Martin's potato rolls. Slider size if you're making sliders, regular if not (they also have big sesame rolls that I like). Honestly, I've tried a lot of buns, and it's not even close, these buns are perfect for burgers. The slightly sweet flavor and chewiness of the bun perfectly complements the burger, and it's strong enough to absorb all the meat juices without disintegrating.

Step 3: You will also need American cheese. I don't care which, Kraft is fine, although the Horizon Organic brand is pretty good if you want to splurge. Also, onions, yellow or white.

Step 4: Get a large cast-iron skillet and throw it in a 500 degree oven while you do Step 5.

Step 5: For sliders, delicately form large golf balls of meat (about 2-2.5 oz). For regular smashed patties, I use about 1.5x amount of the slider. For a pub burger, form a patty from 2-3 sliders. I like about an inch and a half of thickness, which allows you to keep the burger nice and red in the middle. In all preparations, make sure you handle the meat as little as possible, keep it loose, and do not press it together.

Step 6: Cover the patties/balls in more salt and pepper than you think you need. Don't use anything else (well maybe something for some heat, but I prefer to keep the patty milder and add heat in the toppings). Also add a small amount of peanut or vegetable oil to the surface of the patties/balls.

Step 7: Remove the now screaming hot skillet from the oven and place over med-high heat on the stove. Make sure your mitt or whatever is thick enough. I once burned a hole in my palm with a too-thin glove (I did not drop my skirt steak though). Put as many patties/balls as can reasonably fit on the skillet (I have a 12'' and I usually just do 4 sliders at a time or 2 regular patties), and let them sear for 30-40 seconds.

Step 8: This step requires a little bit of ingenuity, but there are multiple creative solutions to this problem. You need a heavy press to flatten out the burger balls. I have used anything from a foil covered brick to just, pressing down heavily with a spatula (cheap ones are not recommended for this, they bend, and burn your hand). I could also buy a bacon press at some point. While cooking my last batch of burgers, I realized that covering the bottom of my knife block in foil would work perfectly. Especially since their are four small legs on the bottom, which allowed me to get a uniform thickness for my patties. If you can find something similar, I highly suggest you use it. Press the burgers about a 1/2 or 1/4 inch thickness, or as far as the guides will allow. Let the burgers cook for another 2 minutes or more until they have a dark brown crust. You might want to go a little longer with a larger burger.

Step 9: Onions. For anything but sliders, I like my onions fully caramelized. This is very easy to do (deglazing with vinegar is a must). For sliders, I like more of a raw flavor in the onions, so I cook them on the outer edge of the skillet in a little salt and pepper, surrounding the sliders. As you smash the sliders, take some of the onions and press them onto the top of the patty. After 2-2.5 minutes, Flip the burgers, and immediately start Step 10.

Step 10: Have your cheese and buns ready. Place a slice of cheese on top of each burger/slider. If these are regular patties, I like to put the caramelized onions on now. Put the top bun on, then put the cut side of the bottom bun facing down on top. Add a spoonful of beef broth or water to the pan, cover and wait 2 minutes. Put the bottoms on the plate and place the burger on top.

Shake Shack Double Shackburger

I made these for the Super Bowl with harissa cheese spread (like a pimento cheeseburger). I also like to make a Philadelphia style burger (similar to Steak & Shake), but with mushrooms added to the green peppers, onions and cheese sauce.

So now that I feel like I've (nearly) perfected the technique, I still felt something was missing. With everything else in perfect harmony, I could only find fault with the the ground chuck, which I bought for $4.50 at Ceriello Fine Foods in Grand Central Market. As J. Kenji Alt-Lopez wrote in his amazing post on A Hamburger Today, chuck lacks "character." I think he's right, so I want to take the next step and start grinding my own meat. We have a kitchen-aid mixer, so buying the meat grinder attachment for that is probably the easiest move, but I might just splurge for the stand-alone grinder. Anyone have any recommendations for grinders or other burger-cooking techniques?

For different ways to cook smashburgers, see here, and here.

Burger Joint


Is there any food more iconic to America than the hamburger? It is a mere coincidence that McDonalds is the U.S.’s “unofficial” trademark? I think not, and so do a good many foreigners I’ve talked to. Whether this association is correct or not is moot. Instead the focus should shift to what makes a good burger. Like Noah, I too enjoy a good burger but unlike my co-blogger I don't personally use such a precise technique and usually choose to keep it simple with a few seasonings, quality meat and good sear on the grill.

For purposes of full disclosure I love hamburgers and have eaten more than my fair share. But in my opinion no burger will be better than the ones my grandfather used to cook. Maybe its nostalgia speaking but to this day I follow the same technique he used. We first need to discuss the meat; where I agree with Noah and believe you should get the freshest meat possible. Not to sound like a broken record but try to establish a relationship with a local butcher or better yet grind your own burger mixture. My grandfather had a great relationship with his butcher and would get his ground beef fresh the day he cooked them. But what about those of us who don't grind our own meat? I prefer using a 80/20 meat to fat blend since fat = flavor, don't skimp out on the fat.

Next, the hamburger bun. Sounds simple, yet this component is often overlooked and is usually the crux of separating a good hamburger from a great one. I tend to like potato rolls for the subtle sweetness they provide and more importantly for the squishy texture they have that allows for a more seamless burger eating experience. Too many restaurants try to use fancy rolls or crusty breads. While good crusty bread is great, it clashes with the hamburger juicy hamburger and often leads to an awkward experience. Brioche is fine but who always has access to brioche hamburger buns?

Finally, there is the aspect that is condiments and hamburger toppings. From applewood smoked bacon to blue cheese the combinations are limitless and can be fun; but I prefer to stick to a well seasoned hamburger cooked medium rare with salt and pepper, topped with yellow American cheese (silky texture and an added salt element) and some caramelized onions on a potato roll with some mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup; the sum of the parts representing the finest of American culinary achievements.

Just in time for my humble post, J. Kenji Alt-Lopez posts about more breakthroughs in smashed burger technology and makes a "floodburger".

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